musician builds an arch | Independent from New Haven

“Build yourself an ark,” written by David Sasso, slips into his waltz time with an easy swing, a breath of a mandolin. But Sasso’s voice carries instructions: “Gather some gopher wood and build yourself an ark.” It is an immediate reference to the story of Noah’s Flood, but it is brought back to the present via a form of traditional music that Sasso gives a modern twist. “Take your loved ones; they may not all want to go / Don’t worry about your husband; he already knows it, ”he sings.

It is then that, if you listen carefully, you understand that Sasso is turning the original story upside down. If the narrator is God, then God is not speaking to Noah, but to his wife Naamah – who does not appear in the Torah story, but does appear in the Midrash, rabbinical discourses on the original story. Or is the narrator really God?

“Build Yourself an Ark” and “Flight of the Raven” are two songs – one in traditional American fashion and one in classical mode – that Sasso, a New Haven-based composer and musician who is also a practicing psychiatrist, wrote for a. program titled Religion, Spirituality, and the Arts, asking artists from various backgrounds and media “to study a particular biblical passage from multiple perspectives and come up with an answer that would be presented in a live gallery,” Sasso said.

The story chosen for 2020 was Noah’s Flood.

“They chose him before the pandemic,” Sasso said, but he turned out to be “perfect for a lot of things this year”. For Sasso, it also allowed him to continue to examine the issues of family, faith and music that have accompanied him throughout his life.

Sasso grew up in Indianapolis, the son of two rabbis, Dennis Sasso and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. “This is the first married rabbinical couple in history,” he said, “which makes me, in fact, the first child born to a female rabbi.” Her parents shared a congregation, Beth-El Zedeck, for many years; her father still practices in the pulpit while her mother is a teacher and author.

Sasso grew up playing “various instruments” in the classical tradition from the age of three. He began to compose in college. In high school, he went to the Interlochen Center for the Arts and wrote a piece which the student orchestra then performed. Then, “one of the composers over there said, ‘Do you want to write a piece for a program I’m doing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra?’ Sasso was 16 and said yes, and the play was performed. Three years later, while at Indiana University, he won a commission to write another piece for this orchestra. He studied music and biochemistry at university “and wrote a lot of music”.

He then went to medical school; “I decided it would be easier to be a doctor and a musician next door than the other way around.” Nevertheless, while obtaining his medical training, he wrote a complete opera, The Menuet Trio, the Indianapolis Children’s Choir was established in 2003; it “ended up on a few PBS stations,” he said. He completed his training in psychiatry and is now an assistant clinical professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, medical director of the Child Guidance Center in Mid-Fairfield County, and a private practitioner. He is also firmly anchored in the great New Haven music scene as a mandolin player for Five and Change, in his duet with Kat Wallace and as a session musician.

The RSA is run by Sasso’s mother through the IUPUI – a collaboration between Indiana University and Purdue University – and “it always seemed really cool to me,” Sasso said, “but I didn’t never got to participate “because the live events took place in Indiana and Sasso, as a practicing psychiatrist, is based here. When the Covid-19 pandemic meant the program was to be run remotely in 2020-2021, however “I applied,” Sasso said, and was accepted by his panel of 10 faculty members.

Sasso began by revisiting the story of Noah, then turned to Jewish interpretations of the story. “What I like about the program is that it honors the text while challenging it, and it sounds like a very Jewish notion,” he said. “In the Jewish tradition, the greatest honor you can give to an idea is not only to engage in it seriously, but also critically and creatively. This meant moving away from a literal interpretation of the story, which would suggest determining what is “right” and “wrong” about it. Instead, Sasso said, “let’s just sit down with all the ambiguity and nuance. Let’s explore all the spaces in between. He also felt the ways in which his approach draws on his experience as a psychiatrist. “When something uncomfortable happens, you don’t just make a decision…. as soon as you choose a side ”, it is possible that“ you have excluded a lot of creative possibilities and opportunities for healing ”, to“ find wisdom in contradictions ”.

He was inspired by stories of floods from other cultures, such as Gilgamesh. He also moved forward in time to find connections to the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the isolation of the pandemic, and the human elements of the story – where only a handful of people survive while the vast majority of humanity perishes – the United States continued reckoning with racism.

“The conversation about Noah’s story at the superficial level is, why would God do something so horrible that He destroyed everyone except the one who was in that ark? This led to a second immediate question: “How is it that Noah in the story does not speak a word to God?” In the story, he follows orders; he does not argue, he does not ask for clemency for his friends and neighbors. This led Sasso to view the people (and deity) in the story as characters – questioning the kind of anger that makes someone want to destroy everything, and asking the question “what can you preserve?” So instead of being a story of destruction, it becomes a story of preservation. And from Noah’s perspective, “if you see that everything around you is about to be destroyed, what do you do?” “

“To me, it’s a story about what human beings do in response to a disaster … because the disaster happens without our wanting it all the time.” Based on a reading that conceived of Noah’s Ark as an archive, Sasso reflected on what was kept there. There are humans and animals. In Midrash, Noah’s wife, Naamah, preserves the seeds and plants everything after the flood waters recede and the earth re-emerges.

So, when writing the lyrics to “Build yourself an ark”, Sasso thought it was “instructions for a modern day ark”. He wrote it in October, when “we had all been squatting and squatting for months.” When he sat down to write the play, he first envisioned something classic. But “I sat there with my guitar and sang, ‘Gather some gopher wood and build yourself an ark,’ and that was it.” It ended up becoming a country waltz.

He started by thinking about what he thought was worth preserving “when society is going through upheaval,” he said. He was thinking of art, music, stories, “wisdom, kind words”. He thought he was taking care of the community around him. He also found himself thinking about preserving “the truth” – “a slippery, but important concept, and that’s something American society has really struggled with,” he said. He then returned to what he considered to be part of his Jewish perspective, which was that the truth was not something you came to as much as you constantly tried to get to, never really got there. “The whole premise of science is that we never get to the truth. It’s just “what’s the question that brings us a little closer?”

He and his musical partner Kat Wallace recorded the song in December with a group consisting of Mike Robinson on steel pedal guitar, Brittany Karlson on bass on vocals and Ariel Bernstein on drums, amid “all kinds of testing. and quarantines, and people stepping back at the last minute and finding replacements. We got a group and we had an AirBnB, and we made the masks, and we went in and recorded. »Other pieces were added later.

“Star group,” Sasso said. “I just ran the cameras all the time and picked all the songs that were the right takes.” He liked how the video made it look like “we were all in our own arches, or we were all in a cruise ship arch, and you are looking through the portholes.”

The choral piece “Flight of the Raven”, meanwhile, was an opportunity for Sasso to “plunge my toes back into” classical composition, he said. He spent a week during the New Year’s holidays setting to music a poem his mother had written about the crow that Noah first sent from the boat to find land; the crow does not return. The poem “humanizes the crow”, dealing with his feelings of resentment at having been sent on a suicide mission. “I will feed the prophets and not be silent,” the poem reads.

Employing a mindset that many composers have used, Sasso imbues his composition with words; the chords of the piece – F, A, C, E – “spell” face “” while the “two main notes of the melody, if you break it down, spell” ed “, which means” witness “in Hebrew, thus the crow is a witness on the face of the earth which is covered with water.The choirs sing the word “tevah,” which means “ark.” At some point, the chords change to spell the word “cage”. The play’s English horn plays the tropes of Torah and Haftora of Jewish services.

He enlisted the help of singers Moira Smiley, Karla Mundy and Robert Eisentrout, with Anna Lampidis on English horn, to help him record the piece from a distance. Smiley is a “vocal shapeshifter” who writes and performs, Sasso said; she and Sasso had known each other since middle school. Smiley found the other singers to complete the group. Sasso found the English horn player through mutual acquaintance. He edited the video and “added some footage of a beach in Curacao” to give the effect of a crow “floating on an endless sea”.

“It’s a real throwback to songwriting like I did in college,” Sasso said. Although his writing experience gave him the idea to return to the classical world and write an opera or a symphony.

“Something grandiose,” he said.

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